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Troy   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Writer: David Benioff
Cast: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Brendan Gleeson, Peter O'Toole.

Review by Rob Vaux

How many summer pictures can you name where you're not certain if the right side wins? Troy struggles to compress a weighty classic into a fluffy Pop Tart, but it latches onto some surprisingly effective ideas in the process. There's moral ambiguity amid its beefcake; the characters can't always tell how best to proceed and neither can we. Director Wolfgang Petersen might have been best served with a real epic -- three-and-a-half to four hours to develop things properly -- but even the mass-market formula he's been shackled with can't obfuscate the power of the material.

Have no doubt, this is definitely a Cliffs Notes version: high on spectacle, low on complexities. Based on the Greek poem by Homer ("inspired by" as the credits glibly put it), it strips the Trojan War down to the bare-bones minimum. Purists will likely be incensed by what's missing, and certainly the cut material costs Troy a great deal. The more fantastic elements are reduced to a few ambiguous suggestions, removing the elegant machinations of fate and destiny. Nowhere is this truer than in the opening, where the Greek Queen Helen (Diane Kruger) dumps her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) for Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom). The original tale involved Helen's undisputed status as the most beautiful woman in the world. In order to prevent a war, her father exacted an oath from her suitors to defend whoever he chose as husband from anyone who dared violate the marriage (naturally, every man signed on, hoping he'd be the beau to benefit... and every man then had to join the army chasing after Paris). The film, however, has no time for such perfect symmetry. Instead, it posits a Greece recently united under Menelaus's brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox), who sees a chance to expand his empire once Paris absconds with the girl. The army is helmed by his assembled underlings, bound by loyalty and fear rather than honor. The change gets the point across, but it lacks finesse, suggesting a need to kick-start the action and keep the running time brief.

Troy is rife with similar excisions, each one throwing a little bit of the baby out with the bathwater. Under the sun-baked cinematography of Roger Pratt, we get the expected cocktail of hot bodies and thundering action. The massive Greek army clashes and retreats against the walls of Troy, while Petersen mixes colossal set pieces with cribbed snippets of the book. Subtleties are dropped, and characters and events are reduced to the most expedient shorthand. To call the results uneven would be a kindness; Troy never finds its rhythm, caught as it is between the need to dazzle our senses and the desire to do right by its subject. It eventually grows wearying (the funeral pyres lose their punch by the third go 'round) and the climax collapses into a series of hokey confrontations that would bore the average five-year-old.

And yet Troy finds redemption by making the most of what it can. While it never encompasses the enormity of the piece, it still catches potent little details and holds them long enough to let them bloom. The best examples are the armies' respective champions -- Greek Achilles (Brad Pitt), the supposed spawn of a goddess whom it is rumored no man can kill, and Trojan Hector (Eric Bana), Paris' elder brother, whose tactical genius matches Achilles' personal prowess. Though the mumble-worthy dialogue confounds them at times, the two actors convey a great deal with their physical presence, and their faces speak volumes about the characters they inhabit. Achilles is all ego, self-confidence, and prima-donna spats (Laker fans will recognize his particular brand of petulance immediately), while Hector is a good, selfless man forced by duty into a fight he suspects he can't win. Though their bare-bronzed tushies are openly on display, Troy never limits them to empty hunk-dom, and the performances bring a very human element to the drama beneath them.

Several other cast members make nice impressions as well. Bloom turns his swashbuckling image on its ear as the naïve, cowardly Paris, while fellow Lord of the Rings alum Sean Bean establishes some good background color as Odysseus, a Greek general with some clever ideas (he has a doozy involving a wooden horse). Petersen supports his performers by keeping the action brisk. The hand-to-hand fighting is elegant and slick, suggesting a disciplined martial art rather than just whacking at each other with swords. The effects are readily apparent, but seamless and engaging, and while the conversations never quite gel, they still provide a few juicy moments. And the showstopping battle between Hector and Achilles is an unabashed triumph.

Out of the disparate pieces emerges a fragile but distinctive meditation on the nature of war. Homer's epic was based not on the glorification of heroes or the vanquishing of evil, but on the melancholy wisdom born of armed conflict. Foolishness and villainy appear on both sides, as do bravery and honor. The characters lose tangible parts of their souls to the bloodshed, and while one side eventually triumphs, the terrible price weighs heavily upon their heads. In the end, only the buzzards are truly happy. Troy never perfects that message, but neither does it give up, battling to keep it alive even as it loses track of so much else. It's ungainly, awkward, even kitschy at times, but when the final credits roll, the essence of its forbearer remains intact. Considering the alternatives, that earns Troy a quiet round of applause.

Review published 05.14.2004.

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